Holidays and Matsuri in Japan

Jasmine Kraemer
Major: Interdisciplinary Health Services and Japanese
Keio University, AY 18-19

It’s officially been 3 months here in Japan, and boy does time fly. It may be December now, but it finally feels like Autumn. Even though the Christmas season has started, and Christmas lights everywhere have been put up, the Autumn leaves still cling to the trees. Now that it’s December though, many places in Tokyo are hosting Illuminations, which are really cool light shows that last about 10 minutes and replay again and again during the night. So far, I have only been to one in Roppongi, but I have to say that they are pretty spectacular. The music and the lights really immerse you into the story that is being conveyed. However, even though the Christmas season has started, let’s rewind a little and talk about some of the holidays and festivals that have past.


Halloween is one of those commercialized holidays that now take place in a multitude of countries, Japan being one of them. Pretty much several weeks before Halloween was to take place, clubs were advertising one of many of the Halloween parties that were going to happen all around Tokyo. An interesting thing about some clubs is that girls often times don’t have to pay the entrance fees unlike their male counterparts, usually because the club wants to keep an even balance of the sexes. Besides the club parties though, the biggest thing that usually happens in Tokyo for Halloween is the huge costume party that is “held” at Shibuya scramble, the big intersection in Shibuya. However, as Halloween was approaching, I was being warned by my teachers and some fellow students that the Shibuya Halloween party can get a bit crazy. Apparently, the teachers were right. On Halloween, a truck was flipped over, and several people were arrested recently for it. Talk about a wild night. But this is how the adults spend Halloween, what about the children? From what I saw, there was an event in my town on the Sunday before Halloween, which makes sense since the parents can really only take their kids trick or treating when they don’t have work and the children don’t have school. On my way to the station, I saw plenty of adorable little children dressed up as mainly witches, princesses, red riding hood, and then the occasional creative costume. There was this one boy who had a home-made bento box costume, and this young girl who was a bubble bee. I also saw lots of children with candy or lining up in front of shops who were handing out special goods for the kids. As for what I did on Halloween, well, I enjoyed my dorm’s Halloween curry since I was exhausted and not about to go to overcrowded, chaotic Shibuya.

Halloween Dinner.jpg
Image: My double curry Halloween dinner!

Labor Thanksgiving

There’s not much to say about this holiday. It’s similar in meaning to the American Thanksgiving, but it’s really just treated as an extra day off. There were no festivities that I heard of, and I didn’t really know that it was a holiday until I realized that all of the stores were closed. Unlike the American Thanksgiving always being on the fourth Thursday of the month, Labor

Thanksgiving is always November 23rd, which happened to be a Friday this year giving everyone a nice three-day weekend.


On top of all of these holidays, Japan also has some big festivals year-round called matsuri. Matsuri range from big to small usually depending on the city. The themes also change depending on the season. Matsuri can sometimes just be about food or sometimes just about celebrating the town. The bigger matsuri, though, usually have been celebrated for several centuries, with some of the oldest matsuri having been celebrated for a millennium. At each matsuri, there are a range of traditional Japanese practices that you can observe differing from one matsuri to the next. So far, I have only been to three matsuri; the Taipei Matsuri, the Mita Citizens Matsuri, and the elaborate Kawagoe Matsuri.

The Taipei Matsuri and the Mita Citizens Matsuri

Truth be told, my friend and I had only planned on going to the Taipei Matsuri to enjoy some Taiwanese food. However, the Taipei Matsuri was located right under Tokyo Tower, and the Mita Citizens Matsuri was located by Zojo-ji Temple located down the hill from Tokyo Tower. As we were trying to navigate our way up to Tokyo Tower, we ran into the Mita Citizens Matsuri and thought it was the matsuri that we were looking for. At the Mita Citizens Matsuri, there were a lot of local businesses advertising and sometimes giving discounts or goodie bags to people. There were several events for the children, and there was a small idol group dancing and singing directly in front of the temple on a makeshift stage. After we had wandered around the Mita Citizens Matsuri for a bit, we decided to try and find the Taipei festival again. We had to go around to the other side of Tokyo Tower to finally find the matsuri. The Taipei Matsuri was different from the Mita Citizens Matsuri in that it was just a food matsuri. There were food stalls lining the entire perimeter of the matsuri area, which wasn’t too big compared to the Mita Citizens Matsuri. My friend and I decided on which foods we wanted to buy, then proceeded to wait in the pretty long lines for them. We ended up trying some amazing Taiwanese food, even one that had a Michelin star. Even though the lines were long and some of the prices were steep, the food was well worth it.

Taipei Matsuri Food
Image: Some of the food we got from the Taipei Matsuri.

Kawagoe Matsuri

One of the biggest matsuri held near Tokyo is the Kawagoe Matsuri. The Kawagoe Matsuri is also one of the older matsuri being held for over 370 years now. Since my friend lives a few stations away from Kawagoe, we decided to meet each other super early in the morning before the festival even started to visit some of the shrines and temples without the huge crowds. When we met up at Kawagoe station and started to head down the streets toward where the heart of the matsuri would be, we got to see people still setting up their food booths.

Kawagoe Street Corner.jpg
Image: Some of the decorations on every light pole.

As we walked further, we finally reached Kawagoe’s Little Edo, which is a neighborhood that has shops and houses reconstructed from the Edo period since most of the original ones burned down in the Great Fire of Kawagoe. A lot of the stores were still closed that early in the morning, so we got to enjoy the scenery and architecture of Little Edo.

Kawagoe Little Edo.jpg
Image: The store fronts of some of the shops in Little Edo.

Around Little Edo, there were many shrines and temples to visit, although some of them were closed at the time. The shrines and temples were mostly empty that early in the morning, so we were able to enjoy the serene shrines and temples with only a couple tourists or early birds being there with us.

Kawagoe Temple.jpg
Image: Me in front of one of the many temples in Kawagoe.
Kawagoe Shrine.jpg
Image: One of the many shrines as well

After we visited all of the temples and shrines that we wanted to, we headed over to the Edo themed Starbucks to chill until the matsuri started since we didn’t realize we had come about an hour too early.

Image: Definitely the nicest Starbucks I’ve ever been to

Once the matsuri had started, we began walking around trying to decide which foods we wanted to eat. We spotted some taiyaki, a fish-shaped red bean pastry, and bought one of those. Other than taiyaki, there were popular matsuri foods such as yakisoba, ikayaki (fried squid), kakigori (shaved ice with syrup similar to a snow cone), takoyaki (fried balls of dough with octopus inside), and many others. Along with the traditional matsuri food, there were many shops and stands selling masks and charms. A typical thing to wear at matsuri like the Kawagoe Matsuri are masks. These masks usually depict Japanese folklore gods and demons and each mask is used to represent health, good luck, and other things depending on the deity. These masks are typically worn for fun and normally off to the side of the head. I don’t think I saw anyone actually wearing them on their face. Many booths sell the quality masks, whereas, some booths sell cheaper masks that are decorated with paint and markers.

Mask Booth.jpg
Image: Some of the nicer masks

Near the middle of the day, when we started meeting up with more friends, we started sharing more street foods. There was this one shop in particular that had a long line and seemed

popular, but we didn’t know exactly what they were selling. We decided to wait in the line since it must be good if it’s got such a long line, right? And we weren’t wrong, they were delicious!

Street Food
Image: The thin sliced sweet potato chips with butter sauce and chili sauce. The chili sauce was definitely the tastier of the two.

And now last but not least, let’s talk about the main point of the festival, the dashi. The dashi are floats that are pulled by a vast amount of people during the festival, unlike mikoshi (portable shrine), which are carried on people’s shoulders. Also, people are allowed to ride on the dashi but can’t ride on the mikoshi since the sacred deity is sitting inside. The dashi at the Kawagoe Matsuri are two stories tall. So tall that on some streets, there are people on the top of the dashi with gloves to move up the power lines that the dashi would run into otherwise. Then on top of each dashi is a human sized doll that each represent something different. On the first story of the dashi is the stage where the performer dances while wearing a mask and the musicians play on traditional Japanese instruments. The dashi are made out of wood and move on wooden wheels. So every time they want to move the dashi slightly as it is being pulled, they have these flat-edged metal poles that they have the dashi roll over to change the direction slightly. If they want to turn a corner, they have to stop the dashi, jack it up, turn the dashi, then remove the jack, then they can proceed down the street again.

The cool thing about the Kawagoe Matsuri was that the matsuri’s main event is the Hikkawase, which consists of the hayashi performances, dance and song battle, that occur between two dashi or a dashi and a stand still stage on the side of the street. The part of the dashi above the wheels can rotate 360 degrees. So whenever a dashi came upon another dashi or a stand still stage, the people would take out the wooden wedges that keep the dashi stage from rotating and rotate the stage towards the other stage, and they would do the hayashi performance to each other. Afterwards, the performers would bow at each other, and they would rotate the dashi back and hammer the wedges back in. Also, when the dashi reached a main intersection, the stage would turn to each street and acknowledge the people on the streets usually with a small dance or gesture then continue down the street. The climax of the Kawagoe Matsuri is the evening Hikkawase where all of the dashi line the streets and perform their hayashi performance at each other. However, since I had been there the entire day with my friend and wanted to get back before midnight to my dorm since I had class the next day, I did not see the evening Hikkawase. Though, at the end of the night before the Hikkawase started, the roads were so packed with people that it took us a solid hour to get back to the station, even though normally it would take 10 minutes.

Night Dashi.jpg
Image: One of the dashi at night facing our street and acknowledging us
Stand Still Stage
Image: Some people would hold up their babies or pets to the performer who was supposed to be a deity, and it looked like the performer would bless them. However, one baby ended up crying.

Overall, I had a blast at the Kawagoe Matsuri and all of the matsuri that I have been to thus far. A lot of the matsuri are supposed to occur in the summer, so I am looking forward to attending more matsuri in the future while I’m still here.

See you next time! またね!

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